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Midnight in the Switchgrass is not a serious film, although the log line might have you believe otherwise. Randall Emmett’s poorly plotted and agonizingly acted directorial debut follows a multi-agency (FBI and local police force) investigation into the kidnapping and brutal murders of young women in Pensacola, Florida, a muggy coastal city. The movie, which bills itself as a crime-thriller-mystery, doesn’t come close to fulfilling even the lowest of expectations; it neither takes its characters seriously nor commits to its superficial attempt at topicality.
Written by Alan Horsnail, Midnight in the Switchgrass could easily — for the reasons mentioned above — be written off as a failure, a work to pay little attention to. But formulaic enterprises like these, which lack quality writing or emotional poignancy, reveal American culture’s reliance on lazy tropes about women, sexual violence and law enforcement. Examining these movies offers an opportunity to think about what troubling symbols get reinforced in genre narratives. Even if the point of these films is to revel in pulpy, sweaty atmosphere and action — rather than substance — shows like HBO’s Mare of Easttown provide a lesson in how to thoughtfully grapple with real-life issues without sacrificing genre gratifications.
Midnight in the Switchgrass’ problems begin with intent: It doesn’t quite know what kind of film it wants to be. The uneven direction, veering between brooding, melancholic detective procedural and melodramatic character study, makes you feel like you’re watching two different, equally unsatisfying, films. While the visuals are passable, it’s hard to appreciate them while trying to make sense of the plot and keep up with competing storylines.
Arial shots of Pensacola, followed by a voiceover by Officer Byron Crawford (Emile Hirsch), kick things off. “Lions are born knowing they are predators, antelopes understand that they are prey, humans are the only creatures on Earth given a choice,” he says. The suggestion, about the role of individual responsibility in determining fate, feels misplaced in a film ostensibly concerned with the livelihoods of the town’s most vulnerable population.
Women disappear nearly every day in this small western Florida city. The victims fit similar profiles: young, white and usually sex workers. Early in the film, a man comes across a lifeless, haphazardly discarded body in a random field. The police show up and discover that it’s one of the women who recently went missing. In the following scene, the killer’s next target, Tracey Lee (Caitlin Carmichael), stumbles out of a motel room and walks through a gas station, where a trucker tries to accost her. She fights back before another trucker, Peter (Lukas Haas), saves her life. It’s clear from the dramatic music, his shifty eyes and the slow, menacing motion of the camera that Peter can’t be trusted either.
Sitting in a car, watching this young, inebriated girl stagger through the streets, is FBI agent Karl Helter (Bruce Willis). Despite his proximity, and vow to save women just like Tracey, he does not intervene. Instead, he radios his partner Rebecca Lombardo (Megan Fox), who’s awaiting a perp at the same motel the young woman emerged from. The person who ends up barging into her dingy, underlit room is Calvin (Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly), a low-level pimp. He’s not the man she was expecting, and their scene, filled with half-hearted attempts to physically fight and verbally skewer each other, doesn’t accomplish much in terms of plot or character development. It’s also not particularly fun to watch.
With such a star-powered lineup, one could reasonably expect some juicy acting, but some of the performances have a phoned-in quality — as if the actors didn’t want to be there. (Surprisingly, one of the most consistent and invested turns comes from Machine Gun Kelley.)
In another part of town, Detective Crawford sits in the office of Lieutenant Gilbright (Donovan Carter), who informs him that he is — for reasons never made clear — off the missing-young-women case. Their disjointed and unpersuasive exchange leaves Crawford dejected. As he walks out, he drops this basic line: “You know nobody has ever stood up for those girls, and I just can’t seem to reconcile that no more.”
Midnight in the Switchgrass does not respect the victims or survivors who motivate its main characters. They are foils for the agents and detectives, shorthand to prove their unearned courage and imbue their lives with purpose. The film is peppered with would-be noble lines like Crawford’s, sentiments advertising a particular kind of politics or moral virtue instead of illustrating or developing the characters’ particular humanity.
The few attempts to flesh out personalities are so shallow as to not be worth it. When Agent Lombardo meets Tracey’s sister, Heather (Sistine Stallone), the two have a conversation one would think would be heartfelt, or would answer critical questions about the relationship between Heather and Tracey or Lombardo’s motivations. Instead, it’s perfunctory, managing to reveal nothing about either character.
It’s a shame that Lombardo, a determined and hot-headed FBI agent who has been hunting this killer for a long time, doesn’t get a sufficient backstory. Indeed, Midnight in the Switchgrass puts more effort into rounding out its male characters: Crawford struggles to balance his commitments to his wife and child with his obsession with the case; Helter spends his few moments onscreen talking about his potential divorce and weighing the toll Lombardo’s recklessness has on his life. Despite spending significant portions of the film with Lombardo, neither of these men bothers to ask about her life — perhaps the closest the movie gets to being realistic.
Helter eventually decides to quit the investigation, leaving Lombardo to partner with Crawford on a last-ditch undercover stint to catch the killer. At this point, the film drops all pretense and morphs into a full-fledged action thriller — a welcome development that injects higher stakes and much-needed tension into the narrative. Sadly, it’s too little too late, and the movie — surprise, surprise — ends on an unsatisfying and forgettable note.
Production companies: Emmett Furla Oasis Films, The Pimienta Film Co.
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Megan Fox, Bruce Willis, Lukas Haas, Caitlin Carmichael, Colson Baker, Michael Beach, Lydia Hull, Sistine Stallone, Welker White
Director: Randall Emmett
Screenwriter: Alan Horsnail
Producers: Randall Emmett, p.g.a., George Furla, p.g.a., Tim Sullivan, p.g.a., Nick
Koskoff, Alex Eckert, Luillo Ruiz
Executive producers: Shaun Sanghani, Ceasar Richbow, Lydia Hull, Ted Fox, Barry Brooker, Stan Wertlieb, Ryan Black, Arianne Fraser, Delphine Perrier, Henry Winterstern, Matthew Helderman, Luke Taylor, Tyler Gould, Joe Listhaus, Alastair Burlingham, Gary Raskin, Chad A. Verdi, Arnaud Lannic, Cyril Megret, Marily “GiGi” Reyes, Diana Principe, Mark Stewart
Directors of photography: Duane Charles Manwiller, Bradley Stonesifer
Production designers: Mailara Santana Pomales, Travis Zariwny
Costume designer: Ana C. Ramírez Vélez
Editor: Colby Parker Jr., ACE
Score by: Liam Westbrook and Robin Stout
Casting director: Sheila Jaffe, Bryan Riley, Zoraida Sanjurjo López, CSA
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